Building Suspense: Spaces, Boundaries, and Drama in Hitchchock's Rear Window and Psycho

David R Coon


Cultural producers, including screenwriters and film directors, create fictional and imagined spaces as the locations – and sometimes subjects – of the stories they tell. Through the depiction of characters interacting with fictional spaces, storytellers illuminate the significance of spatial relationships in the real world. An examination of spaces in fictional narratives can therefore reveal a great deal about the spaces we inhabit in our everyday lives. One storyteller who has frequently used both natural and man-made spatial environments as catalysts for drama is the “Master of Suspense” himself, film director Alfred Hitchcock. By taking a close look at two Hitchcock films in which the built environment is especially significant, this article demonstrates the importance of architectural, geographic, and social spaces in the context of Hitchcock’s work. In particular, I consider the ways that these films draw on both physical and symbolic boundaries as a way of generating tension and enhancing suspense. The setting of Rear Window (1954) is inseparable from the film’s commentary on the physical and social divisions between public and private, while the setting of Psycho (1960) emphasizes and materializes the issues of duality that are central to the film. I argue that Hitchcock’s use of space – both the design of the sets and the way that he stages action within them – plays a crucial role in the development of suspense within both films. By drawing on societal anxieties about the tenuous nature of cultural boundaries and the dangers of crossing such boundaries, Hitchcock offers material expressions of existing fears in order to enhance the suspense within his narratives.


Space; Architecture; Boundaries; Suspense; Hitchcock

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